Ronnie Peterson, who took his first Formula 1 win 47 years ago at the French Grand Prix, is a motorsport legend. When he spoke to CHRIS HOCKLEY for the 7 September 1978 issue of Autosport magazine, he was at the height of his powers, but the great Swede was tragically killed just days later at the Italian Grand Prix
The scorching sun beat down as the noise from a lone engine crackled sharply around the trees, rising and falling as hillocks of grassland soaked up the decibels. There was just time for a tingle of anticipation before one of the world's great grand prix drivers crested the rise and hove into view.
Ronnie Peterson was on his favourite circuit. Covered with sweat in the unrelenting summer heat and clipping the apexes of the bends ever closer, he had brought his lap times down to 3m30s, an average speed of a shade over 4mph.
Four mph? Well, he has gone quicker on occasions. But considering the circuit was his lawn and his steed was an 11hp mini tractor-type lawn mower, 4mph was not to be sniffed at. Just think how fast he could go if only he could get the beast on to opposite lock...
As he rumbled to a halt near the terrace of his picture postcard house in the serene Berkshire countryside outside Maidenhead, Ronnie eased himself deliberately out of the seat - he never does anything quickly, except drive - and pointed to the fan-like contraption on the underside of the mower housing the rotor blade.
"There, you see," he grins. "I've had my own secret ground-effects car all this time."
It's just as well that the tall, cumbersome Swede has retained a sense of humour. For when he is telling his grandchildren the story of his life, he will probably remember 1978 as the year in which his own childhood dream of becoming world champion came so close to reality... and yet slipped away into the night because he was forced to let someone else win it without a fight.
A year in which SuperSwede became SuperSecond.
Some so-called experts are already saying that 1978 has been the year in which Peterson has 'come back'. But as far as the man himself is concerned, he has never been away. More a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To an extent, it is hard to blame the cynics for writing him off. A world championship points tally of six in 1975, 10 in 1976 and seven in 1977 was hardly calculated to set the world on fire, and even fickle Formula 1 team managers joined the ranks of the Doubting Thomases. He has done his bit, they said. Now he's rich, he has a nice house, a lovely wife and a baby daughter. Why should he risk his neck when he has all that to lose?
It was all they could do to hide their 'told-you-so' smiles as Peterson, by his own admission, had his worst ever season last year with Tyrrell, a partnership that promised so much but delivered so little. They did not listen when a knowing Ken Tyrrell said one of his major regrets about the six-wheeler project was that he had been unable to give Peterson a car capable of winning.
"I took a good look at things and I knew that, at this stage in my career, I needed Colin Chapman. He is still the most brilliant designer of the whole pack, and I knew he had a car that I could go well in" Ronnie Peterson
But even the critics were surprised when the Swede announced that he was returning to the wilds of Norfolk to launch his new challenge as number two driver at Team Lotus. Was it not Lotus who had provided him with a virtual antique in which to fight the rest of the glittering gladiators in 1975? And was it not with Colin Chapman that he had a public bust-up when the Lotus blossom withered and all but died under the blazing sun at Interlagos the following year?
The split had been a long time coming. Before the 1975 season, a disenchanted Peterson looked set to join Shadow, but never did. After the year's racing, Chapman launched an amazing attack on modern grand prix drivers as a breed, inevitably including his own, by calling them a bunch of "ninety percenters".
He was apparently willing to swap Peterson for another contracted driver if the deal was right... and there were sponsorship problems. Just before he packed his crash helmet and headed for March, an angry Peterson told me: "Chapman is going through a bad patch and he has to have someone to explode on."
So why did he go back?
"I had plenty of offers from other, smaller teams to be number one driver," he says. "But I know how important it is to be with one of the big teams. I took a good look at things and I knew that, at this stage in my career, I needed Colin Chapman. He is still the most brilliant designer of the whole pack, and I knew he had a car that I could go well in.
"Obviously to have a season like I had last year is not so good, but I still believed in myself and I thought my best chance was at Lotus. I asked Colin about the possibilities because I knew Gunnar Nilsson was planning to move and that Mario Andretti was talking to Ferrari. And here I am."
It was not quite as simple as that, of course. Stories flew thick and fast that Peterson had paid for the drive through his long-time supporter, Polar Caravans. And other, more intriguing, gossip suggested that Andretti was furious with the choice of Peterson as his team-mate, and was demanding guarantees of his number one status. Peterson insists that both stories were flights of fancy.
"I did bring a sponsor along, but I certainly did not pay for the drive," he says, indignant at the very thought. "There was no difference in me bringing Polar to Lotus and Niki Lauda bringing Parmalat to Brabham.
"As for Mario's reaction, that was totally in the press. We had a discussion before I signed and we talked heart to heart about how best Mario could win the championship and how I would not interfere with that aim.
"There was no problem. In fact, Mario is very easy to get on with. I've been to see him at his home in America and he has been here often when he is in England."
So the strategy for the Lotus masterplan had been detailed. Andretti as commanding officer, Peterson as his lieutenant. Their weapons were to be Lotus 78s until the new 79 was ready to roll into action. All that was left was the execution - and it came swiftly and without fuss.
As the F1 circus heads for the last European GP of the season in Italy, Lotus has bagged another constructors' title, and equalled Ferrari's total of GP wins, while Andretti lies 12 points clear of Peterson at the right end of the drivers' table. Before the Dutch GP, there seemed to be only one threat to the black-and-gold domination - and that was a Peterson mutiny.
"Team orders haven't come into it because the situation has always worked itself out. In the races where I finished second I could not have beaten him anyway" Ronnie Peterson
But after shielding Andretti, cracked exhaust pipe and all, from the attacking Lauda at Zandvoort, the last lingering fears that Peterson would contrive to upset the applecart must have been dispelled. According to Ronnie's view of the previous 12 GPs, the Dutch race was the first in which he actually had a chance to change the result by disobeying team orders.
"I have not helped Mario to get his points," he says. "Team orders haven't come into it because the situation has always worked itself out. In the races where I finished second I could not have beaten him anyway - it would hardly have made any difference who was number one and who was number two.
"We have been lying first and second several times when one of us has run into trouble. So in that way it hasn't been at all difficult for me to carry out the agreement."
Not that Peterson would turn his back on the world championship if it came to him through Andretti's misfortune, which might still happen. He was quick to point out the tracks where he had been faster than the American - and he could not hide his ambition when he glowed as he spoke about his one-man-show triumph in Austria.
"That was a race where again I was quite a lot quicker than Mario all through practice," he says. "Then in the race Mario went off on the first lap, which was quite happy for me. He was a real friend to me that weekend. All wins are satisfying, but that one was very important because it meant I could stay in contact with Mario for the championship."
There are four other reasons in the Peterson black book that he believes have kept him off the top of the table: Gilles Villeneuve; Riccardo Patrese; the Brabham fan car; and a "silly" fuel pipe that let him down at Brands Hatch.
"I was lying third in Brazil when Villeneuve ran over my back when I braked. It was a race when everything was working out to my plans. I was taking it steady because I knew everyone would be in trouble with the heat and tyres. And then he hit me - that made me really mad."
In front of his home crowd in Sweden, Peterson finished third, a nosecone behind Patrese. It was a photo-finish reminiscent of Ronnie's win over Patrick Depailler in South Africa, only this time he had to follow the other car over the line. He had put in one of his now-famous catch-up drives after dropping to 17th with a puncture, only to be thwarted by Lauda's fan car... and the controversial Italian.
"Patrese was trying to block me out for the last 10 laps," says Peterson. "He was driving across in front of me - it was just ridiculous."
Then, with the air of an elder statesman who has seen it all before, he added: "More and more people are getting upset about him. But I suppose one day he will learn."
The fan car?
"It was against the rules. It should not have been there... then I would have been second."
Lotus has made winning look easy this year. Andretti has now slipped six victories under his seatbelt while Peterson won in South Africa and Austria (below), finished second in Belgium, Spain, France and Holland, third in Sweden, and fourth in Long Beach. Peterson says the main reason for the 79's utter superiority is "Colin's head working a bit better than the others".
But he smiles at suggestions that the victory laurels should be hung around the car instead of the drivers.
"Yes, I know some people say things like this," he says. "But it doesn't make me annoyed, not at all. You know, Mario and I are almost the two oldest in the business - we need a little help. But seriously, if you put a lunatic in the car it would not win races. You still need a driver."
It is now a mathematical certainty that one of the Lotus twins will be 1978 world champion. It is a title cherished by F1 drivers, but none more so than Peterson, the granddaddy of them all after a career spanning a remarkable 122 GPs.
He has had his fair share of downs in what has been a yo-yo existence, but through it all came an unswerving belief in his own ability to claim the throne. Which makes it altogether incredible that he should now be prepared to bow to Andretti at the same time as accepting that, in the world of GP racing, fortunes are such that an opportunity like this may never happen again.
An unquestioning loyalty to the cause is now rightly regarded as folly. But Peterson has questioned himself about the rights and wrongs of the arrangement, and still comes down firmly in its favour.
"I agreed not to interfere when I joined," he says. "That was the deal and that is what I must do. What happens in the races that are left depends on the team. If they want me to stay behind Mario, I will. It might be the chance of a lifetime for me, but there is nothing I can do about it."
"There is no way my best days are over. I have more experience than anyone in the whole field. I am as fast as I have ever been - quicker maybe" Ronnie Peterson
He brushed aside questions about whether his attitude would change if a move to another team looked on the cards by saying: "I don't think that is a problem, because the situation will sort itself out."
Peterson's name is now on the wanted lists of McLaren and Wolf for next year, but whether he makes the switch depends - surprise - on Andretti.
"I have been talking to several other teams," he says. "It is all up to Mario. I would like to stay at Lotus, but not as number two. There would be no point. If Mario agrees to be equal number one with me, then fair enough, I would go ahead with Lotus. But he doesn't - so what else can I do?"
For his millions of fans, he will be number one whichever team he drives for. Not that he looks like an ace out of the cockpit. As he spoke to me, he lounged lazily across his sun terrace chair, more than a tiny roll of unsprung weight on his shirtless torso. If there are any rippling muscles, they are concealed by a rounded exterior. Or perhaps they are just concentrated on his right foot.
He yawns more than any man I have ever met and leaves the impression that he would go on stretching and sighing forever if he couldn't slip behind the wheel of a car. That is the key to his popularity with the faithful masses on the spectator banks.
He may not have razzmatazz, eloquence, dashing good looks or the stuff from which Boy's Own champions are made. But even at the age of 34 and with millions of Tarmac miles left behind, he is still one hell of a racer.
"There is no way my best days are over," he says. "I have more experience than anyone in the whole field. I am as fast as I have ever been - quicker maybe.
"I have never thought of retiring. I would continue forever and race anything that moves if it were possible. You see, I still enjoy it tremendously - that is what keeps me going."
As I took my leave, passing a sleek brown Lotus Esprit hiding behind a hedge and a silver BMW, Peterson returned to his other life as a family man. He scolded his two-year-old daughter Nina for pouring water into one of his clogs. And then he eased himself deliberately back into the seat of his lawn mower.
There was still half the lawn to cut... and he was sure a 5mph lap was on.
By Kevin Turner
Just three days after this interview appeared, Peterson was involved in a multi-car accident at the start of the Italian GP at Monza. He was in the older Lotus 78 (his 79 having been damaged in practice), which hit the barriers and caught fire.
Peterson was conscious as he was pulled from the car. He had suffered serious leg injuries, but was not considered in danger.
Andretti won the restarted race on the road, only to be penalised for jumping the start, handing victory to Lauda. That dropped Andretti to sixth, but that was still enough to clinch the title and celebrations began when it appeared Peterson would survive.
But early on Sunday morning, 11 September, Peterson was diagnosed with an embolism and soon died. Peterson's final tally was 10 wins and 14 pole positions, and he is still regarded as one of the greatest racing drivers never to win the F1 world championship.
PODCAST: How good was Ronnie Peterson?
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